Heading off hunger before leaving prison

October 7, 2020

By David Gist

Bread for the World advocates recognize that racism is a root cause of hunger and hardship.

Racism in over-policing and sentencing practices leads to jails and prisons being disproportionately filled with people of color—who face ongoing restrictions after release that make it difficult to obtain a job, access food, and successfully transition back into society.

Consequently, people leaving prison are exceptionally vulnerable to hunger.

In California, Bread leaders took action by advocating for and ensuring passage of Assembly Bill 3073. The bill allows eligible individuals in California to pre-enroll in the SNAP program while still incarcerated so they can immediately access food assistance for themselves and their families upon their release.

In the past, formerly incarcerated individuals could apply for SNAP benefits only after they left prison. As a consequence, it could be weeks or even months before they received food assistance—leaving them vulnerable to hunger.

To address this reality, Bread staff and leaders sought help from Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty She ended up writing the bill and invited Assemblymember Buffy Wicks of Oakland to introduce it.

The bill has a lot of upsides—and not just for the formerly incarcerated individual who gets immediately access to food assistance. In fact, it could be a model for other states. The bill’s cost is minimal because pre-enrolling incarcerated individuals for SNAP benefits is as simple as adding a line to a form that recipients already fill out.

Moreover, the bill allows the state to invest in people when they need the help the most—right before they leave prison. By providing access to food assistance for such a vulnerable population, the bill can reduce recidivism and increase public safety.

Once the bill was introduced, Bread leaders fired up their congregations to call and send emails to the California State Assembly and Senate numerous times during the year as the bill made its way to the governor’s desk.

On September 28, Gov. Gavin Newson signed the bill into law, thanks in great part to hunger advocates across California.

Bread board member Rev. Fernando Tamara urged his networks to speak out about AB 3073 and personally contacted the governor to press him to sign the bill. Tamara said that every year more people are incarcerated, whether it is justified or not.

“They suffer a period of time away from their family, relatives, and friends. The silence and solitude can be devastating to the human soul,” Tamara said.

He added: “But when they are free again to begin a new life, the social reinsertion to the society can be painful. That's why AB 3073 is necessary so the applicant can experience the reentry process as a new opportunity given by God, our government, and our society."

David Gist is a senior organizer at Bread for the World.

 Bread for the World advocates recognize that racism is a root cause of hunger and hardship.

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